Is Obedience a Virtue?

In Michael Skerker, Donald G. Carrick & David Whetham (eds.), Military Virtues. Havant, UK: Howgate Publishing Limited. pp. 62-69 (2019)
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In the United States, all military personnel swear to obey “the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.” Military personnel must obey orders promptly in order to facilitate effective military functioning. Yet, obedience to orders has been associated with the commission of war crimes. Military personnel of all ranks have committed torture, rape, genocide, and murder under orders. “I was just following orders” (respondaet superior) is no longer accepted as a complete defense to a charge of war crimes. In the words of the Nuremberg court: “The obedience of a soldier is not the obedience of an automaton. A soldier is a reasoning agent”. This means that military personnel cannot evade responsibility for their actions under orders. But when and under what conditions should military personnel disobey orders? If obedience is sometimes morally wrong, how can obedience be a military virtue? In this chapter I argue that the only plausible conception of military obedience as a virtue is reflective obedience: obedience governed and constrained by the ends of the military profession serving a legitimate state and by the laws of armed conflict. Section 1 explains the concept of obedience and outlines the idea of virtuous obedience. Section 2 explores when the military has legitimate authority to compel obedience. Section 3 concludes by exploring the limits on obedience that derive from the military’s status as a profession and the legitimacy of the military’s authority to issue orders.

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Jessica Wolfendale
Marquette University


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